Gottfried Leibniz’s Proofs of God’s Existence

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The heavens

While the God of the Old Testament is a God of power, and the God of the New Testament is a God of love, Leibniz’s God was the God of the theologians from Aristotle onwards, and this is truly a God of the intellectual. Image by Imelenchon.

The great 17th century German philosopher, Gottfried Leibniz, argued for the truth of God’s existence, as detailed in “Leibniz” in Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. 

Here are his four proofs:

1. The ontological argument; 2. The cosmological argument; 3. The argument from eternal truths and 4. The argument from the pre-established harmony, which is more commonly known as the argument from design. (Immanuel Kant called this “the physico-theological argument.”)

Immanuel Kant subsequently claimed to demolish all the arguments for the existence of God but that didn’t stop many established philosophers from refuting those claims.

The Origins of Medieval Theology

Medieval theology is derived from the Greek intellect, so Leibniz’s metaphysical proofs of God’s existence have a complicated history. Bertrand Russell, in “Leibniz” says: “… they begin with Aristotle, or even Plato; they are formalized by the scholastics, and one of them, the ontological argument, was invented by St. Anselm. This argument, though rejected by St. Thomas, was revived by Descartes.”

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We credit Leibniz, however, with developing the theory and presenting the arguments in detail in the best way possible.

The Ontological Argument

The ontological argument is an attempt to define the difference between “existence” and “essence.”

“Any ordinary person or thing, it is held, exists, and, on the other hand, has certain qualities, which make up his or its essence,” says Russell.

Russell uses an analogy from Shakespeare to demonstrate this. Hamlet, being a character in a play, certainly does not exist in reality. However, he does have a certain essence, and we find this among his characteristics; for example: “melancholy, undecided, witty.”

We can describe someone but this person may not be real, however minutely we dwell on the details, “…in the case of any finite substance, its essence does not imply its existence,” explains Russell.

Both St. Anselm and Descartes claimed that if we define God as the most perfect being, then that essence most certainly does imply existence. “…[A] Being who possesses all other perfections is better if He exists than if He does not, from which it follows that if He does not He is not the best possible Being.”

Leibniz responds:

“There is, therefore, or there can be conceived, a subject of all perfections, or most perfect Being. Whence it follows also that He exists, for existence is among the number of his perfections.”

Bertrand Russell is not in the least convinced by this argument, but admits it’s difficult to see where the fallacy lies.

Immanuel Kant criticised the theory, maintaining that “existence” cannot be described as a “predicate.” As Existence-of-God.Com explains:

“Kant thought that because the ontological argument rests on the judgement that a God that exists is greater than a God that does not, it rests on a confusion… Existence is not a predicate, a property that a thing can either possess or lack.

“When people assert that God exists they are not saying that there is a God and he possesses the property of existence. If that were the case, then when people assert that God does not exist they would be saying that there is a God and he lacks the property of existence… both affirming and denying God’s existence in the same breath…

“To say that something exists is to say that the concept of that thing is exemplified in the world. Existence, then, is not a matter of a thing possessing a property, existence, but of a concept corresponding to something in the world.”

The Cosmological Argument

The cosmological argument is a slightly more complicated version of the “First Cause” argument, which dates back to Aristotle and his claim for an “Unmoved Mover.” “Everything finite must have a cause, which, in turn, must have a cause, and so on…”  The possibility of causes cannot continue infinitely, and so the first in the series must be uncaused. Otherwise, how could it possibly be the first?

Therefore, the uncaused cause of everything must be God.

The original First Cause argument assumed that everything must have a first cause, which is false. Russell gives an example: “…the series of proper fractions has no first term.”  


The cosmological argument says there must be a First Cause. Image by Pippalou.

In an interview in Philosophy Now, Rich Lewis asks Simon Blackburn, the Vice-President of the British Humanist Association, how, as a non-believer, he accounts for the existence of the universe.

“The familiar infinite regress arguments that anything that exists needs a cause stop anyone from ‘accounting for’ the existence of something rather than nothing.

“To stop the regress you would have to postulate something that necessarily exists or is its own cause, and there is no real sense to be made of that,” says Blackburn.

He continues, “And as David Hume said, if there is some unknown, inconceivable quality of ‘necessarily existing,’ then for all we know it might belong to the cosmos itself.” Hume rejected any claim of certainty or truth that could not be proved by producing evidence for its existence through observational experience.

The Argument from the Eternal Truth

If we say, “It is raining,” or “It is sunny,” we may be stating a truth, or we may not. But, if we say 2 plus 2 equals 4, it is always true.

“All statements that have to do with essence not with existence, are either always true or never true,” says Russell.

We can describe statements that are always true as eternal truths. It’s a neat argument.

“The gist of the argument is that truths are part of the contents of minds, and that an eternal truth must be part of an eternal mind… There must be a reason for the whole contingent world, and this reason cannot itself be contingent, but must be sought among eternal truths.” 

This leads Leibniz to claim, “But a reason for what exists must itself exist; therefore eternal truths must in some sense, exist, and they can only exist as thoughts in the mind of God.”

Bertrand Russell disagrees, stating that truth cannot be said to “exist” in the mind that apprehends it, and this seems to be fair comment to our modern minds.

The Argument from the Pre-Established Harmony

Russell believes that this argument has little to recommend it, and is based on Leibniz’s theory about monads, which are souls that mirror the Universe. We know that clocks all keep time with one another, providing they are working properly and someone has set them to the right time. Therefore, according to Leibniz, “…there must have been a single outside Cause that regulated all of them.”

Here, the philosopher contradicts his own theory. This theory claims that the monads, or souls, are unable to interact with one another. If this is the case, how can they know there are others similar to themselves?

“What seems like mirroring the universe may be merely a dream. In fact, if Leibniz is right, it is merely a dream, but he has ascertained somehow that all the monads have similar dreams at the same time,” says Russell.

Russell makes an attempt to rescue Leibniz’s argument by transforming it into the argument from design, where we cannot explain what we see as something created by natural forces, but instead fall back on the concept of a divine benefactor.

Charles Darwin discredited the argument from design, although many people still believe that because something looks as though something designed it, then that must be so. Even Darwin himself, says Richard Dawkins in “Arguments for God’s Existence” was taken in by the argument from design when he was a Cambridge undergraduate. He read about the theory in a work of William Paley entitled Natural Theology.

Richard Dawkins says:

“Evolution, by natural selection, produces an excellent simulacrum of design, mounting prodigious heights of complexity and elegance. And among these eminences of pseudo-design are nervous systems which – among their more modest accomplishments – manifest goal-seeking behaviour that, even in a tiny inset, resembles a sophisticated heat-seeking missile…”

Tiger Lilies

Philosophers and theologians used to believe that nothing that we know looks designed unless it is designed. Then Darwin came along and challenged the argument. Image by Janet Cameron. All rights reserved.

But Maybe We Should Keep an Open Mind…

This delightful and thought-provoking story appears in Jostein Gaardner’s philosophical novel, Sophie’s World.

“A Russian astronaut and a Russian brain surgeon were once discussing religion. The brain surgeon was a Christian, but the astronaut was not.

“The astronaut said, ‘I’ve been out in space many times but I’ve never seen God or angels.’

And the brain surgeon said, ‘And I’ve operated on many clever brains but I’ve never seen a single thought. But that doesn’t prove that thoughts don’t exist.'”

Gaardner’s protagonist, Alberto, reminds us that there is an enormous difference between the material and the spiritual, because the material can be divided into small parts, but you cannot divide the soul.

“The soul cannot even be divided into two.”

Gottfried Leibniz: A True Rationalist

Leibniz was a true rationalist, who upheld the belief that the actual truth about reality could only be achieved through the exercising of pure reason. Bertrand Russell says:

“His philosophical hypotheses, though fantastic, are very clear, and capable of precise expression. Even his monads can still be useful as suggesting possible ways of viewing perception, though thy cannot be regarded as windowless.”

Even the critical atheist, Bertrand Russell, by the end of his chapter on Leibniz, felt compelled to remark on the extraordinary achievement of this great thinker.

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  1. My problem is not with the existence or non-existence of God. It is with the egotistical notion that God responds to our demands or rewards certain kinds of behaviour. God may or may not exist; the idea that he requires ritualised worship and obedience to certain “God given” rules as laid down by religion is, so far as I am concerned, palpable nonsense.

    • Frank: Historically, religion has been influenced and shaped by what was politically expedient at the time. Sometimes that meant subduing the people while, at the same time, giving them something to look forward to in the afterlife. The Bible was also written by many different writers of diverse cultures, and contains only a small number of the books that could have been included among its pages. There are quite a few “books” written by women too, among the archives. I would love to make a study of these, although not sure how I could access the contents. Yes, I think if there is a God, he might prefer it if we all looked after each other on this earth as part of his (if he exists) creation.

  2. I always thought that a cosmos from “nothing” (a la Stephen Hawking et al.) is harder to fathom than a universe springing from the head of Zeus (or fill in the name of any divinity you like). Most of our astrophysics is fairy tale stuff without any hope of emperical experimentation to verify. String theory? That’s nothing but fun with math; it’s speculative mind play. And who will ever demonstrate a wormhole, the other side of a black hole, or that the multiverse exists? Metaphysics with the cloak of science. No different than theology. Dare I utter that I have an inkling that our concept of God (or Zeus for that matter) is a lot smaller than revealed in the world’s faith traditions. In other words, the cosmic genesis is far more amazing than we’ll ever imagine. I chuckle I when hear atheists gloat about their “God of the gaps” argument. God may be pushed back from the gaps, but the gaps continue to multiply. What’s up with that? The ultimate question isn’t “what”, it’s “why” and that stark word will always elude science. Then again science (and so-called revealed religion) is like any human endeavour, it has limits–although I’ll grant that both approaches have lots of hubris. I like the word “agnosticism”. Seriously, who the heck knows for sure? Science, religion…everyone is flying on faith. Relax and enjoy the view of the night sky. The mystery is a journey and the journey is a mystery. And it’s perfectly ok to try and solve the “what” puzzle through science and the “why” puzzle through religion, because that’ s what we humans like to do. (Oh, I thank physicist/science writer Jim Baggott for opening my eyes to a new cosmic view via his 2014 book “Farewell to Reality”. Shameless plug.) .

  3. Great article Janet

    After reading your article i was considering how Einstein might react to the cosmological argument. I am thinking his idea that the universe is infinite but bounded. I am not nearly a mathematician, but it seems it is not possible to have it both ways, both without a beginning or first cause because the universe is infinite and at the same time limited somehow because it is bounded and therefore requiring a first cause?

    • I don’t see how it can be both either, Doug. It’s a paradox but you get used to that when you study philosophy, don’t you? I don’t discard a paradox just because it’s a paradox any more.